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How to support neurodiversity in the workplace

Grace Tame has autism, Greta Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and Richard Branson is dyslexic. This crop of famous faces is far from unique or unusual, with researchers estimating that up to 15 to 20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence, where the brain functions differently to what is considered neurotypical.

In the workplace, there’s growing agreement and understanding that diversity of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and age is good for employees and businesses. But what about diversity in ways of thinking?

‘If you say you’re neurodivergent, often people just assume you’re autistic. For ADHD there’s still work to do to get people to recognise that it’s not naughty behaviour,’ explains Dr Danielle Hitch, a senior lecturer in occupational therapy at Deakin University.

‘Within workplaces there is still a lot of stigma and discrimination. Sometimes it’s just out-and-out discrimination, but often it’s a bit more subtle.’

Here’s how workplaces can best support neurodiversity and create more inclusive environments.

What is neurodivergence?

Neurodiversity is the variation in human experience of the world. Neurotypical describes people who have standard or typical brain function, while the term neurodivergent is used to describe people who have been diagnosed with a condition like autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.

‘There’s a lot of technical terms, but essentially neurodivergence is someone whose brain is wired a bit differently and reacts to the world in a slightly different way to people who are neurotypical,’ explains Dr Hitch, who has ADHD.

‘It covers several conditions – it’s not a single condition and it’s not a condition in itself. It’s a description of a category of illnesses and disabilities that can impact how people experience the world.’

Research reports huge benefits for diverse teams at work, including improved performance, innovation and profit for organisations, and higher levels of engagement and reduced turnover for employees, reports the Australian HRInstitute.

Yet it can be difficult for neurodivergent people to gain a foothold at work in a world largely created, managed and staffed by neurotypical workers. Neurodivergent people are more likely to experience unemployment, often due to a lack of awareness of neurodivergence and the strengths and different perspectives a neurodivergent person can offer in the workplace.

But times are changing. A recent report by autism advocacy organisation Amaze found 84% of Australians say autistic people – who, along with people with ADHD, comprise the largest cohort of neurodivergent workers – are discriminated against. An estimated 70% of Australians believe employers should make adjustments for this group of workers.

Preventing sensory overload

Neurodivergent people are more likely to have sensory difficulties that can be exacerbated by workplace design. A busy, loud open-plan office with people constantly dropping by your desk, for example, can make it difficult to concentrate.

Dr Hitch says workplaces that contain a ‘diversity of environments’ help to support individual differences and preferences in the ways we work.

‘Rather than a pushing to have everyone collaborate, talk to each other and do the same thing, have a part of the office where everyone can hang out if they want to, but also have little nooks where people can decompress and get away from the sensory inputs as much as possible.’

A workplace culture that’s accepting of wearing headphones at your desk, turning your camera off during video calls and working from home occasionally can also help to create a more inclusive environment.

‘The built environment can be managed, designed and retrofitted quite easily to be far more friendly for neurodiverse people,’ Dr Hitch says.

From disclosure to inclusion

There’s no obligation to disclose neurodivergence to an employer, explains Dr Hitch. ‘You can disclose it and under the law, reasonable accommodations should be made for you,’ she says.

‘But it’s a valid choice not to disclose if you don’t feel safe enough to do that, or you don’t feel like it’s going to help.’

Even if you or a colleague chooses to share a diagnosis, Dr Hitch says a key question for workplaces is: does it really matter?

‘If someone’s doing something a little bit differently, but it’s still getting done, does it matter how they do it?’ she says. ‘Sometimes people can get caught up in having to do something a particular way, when it really doesn’t matter.’

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Dr Danielle Hitch
Dr Danielle Hitch

Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy,

Faculty of Health,

Deakin University

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